7 Ways to Remember

Last weekend the whole family set out for our first trail hike of the summer!  I’m ashamed to say we haven’t been out prior to this, but our Spring evenings and weekends have been filled with many dozens of softball and baseball games.  This time of year in Central Oregon is beautiful.  The snow is melted, the mosquitos are gone, the forest paths are springy and damp with wet pine needles, and the smell of rain and pine resin lingers in the crisp wintery air, which ever more frequently tastes sweetly of summer.  Black Butte is a fairly steep two-mile uphill climb to reach the top, but instead of the expected grunts and groans  as we ascended, walking the trail instantly transported the kids back to last years adventures, and they began telling a bunch of our “remember when” stories from previous trips.  That’s one of the great things about travelling together.  The very act of sharing those memories year after year strengthens your family bonds.

I started thinking about some of the traditions we’ve come of up with over the years that help us remember all the things we’ve done, and that provide some connection between our annual summer trips.   While I’m still in the beginning stage of this blog project, I thought it would be a good idea to take a moment to share some of the things we’ve started doing to preserve our memories, and some things I wish we’d been doing since the very first road trip.  Perhaps one of these ideas will work for one of you!

1.  Postcard Collection  Allow each child to pick out their favorite postcard for every single stop on your itinerary.  It’s such a simple thing to do as there are 3/$1 post card stands everywhere.  I get them a postcard from every park, museum, town, cultural site, or any random, cool place we stop that we want to remember.  The beauty of the road trip is that you get to see more than your final destination, so reinforce that with the kids!  Have them write a date on the back, and a couple words about their “mountain” for each place.  When you get home you can collect these in a special photo album, or even a dedicated shoe box.  Think of the collection the kids will have after so many years of travel!

2.  Map Collection  Our family really loves maps.  I especially love the NPS maps you get when you enter each National Park.   They are printed beautifully in color and are full of so much information about each site.  The NPS publishes them for National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Battlefields, basically any site within their jurisdiction.  One side is a full map of the park and includes important landmarks, trails, and other park logistic information.  The other side of the map usually describes the natural and cultural history of the park, as well as any other distinguishing features that make the park unique.  Beautiful and free!  What could be better?   Store them in document protectors, photo or scrapbook albums, or again, a dedicated shoebox works perfectly.

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3.  Sticker Collection  Decorate your Yakima!  Even if you don’t like bumper stickers on your car, show off where you’ve travelled by putting stickers of the all the places you’ve visited on your storage rack.  Ours has started so many conversations about the places we’ve been, and the kids love picking them out and seeing the stickers all year long!

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4.  First Photo  Take a photo of the kids at every National Park entrance sign.  The NPS does a great job of having really unique and creative signs for each park.  After the kids are grown and you’ve seen all the parks, you’ll have an amazing collection of pictures of the kids growing throughout the years!  One day I will make a photo album of all the park entrance photos and give it to them for a random birthday after they are grown and have kids of their own.

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5.  Junior Ranger Badges  There is a Junior Ranger Program at every national park. Immediately go to a visitor center upon arrival and pick up a Junior Ranger Packet.  They are usually booklets filled with word games, scavenger hunts, and conservation activities that teach the kids important things about the park.  Have the kids work on it throughout your stay and then turn them in before you leave.  Each child that completes the required number of activities will get “sworn in” as a Junior Ranger, and receive a Junior Ranger Badge.   Anyone into girl scouts or boy scouts?  It’s the same kind of program, and it’s nice to have a place to pin all the badges the kids earn.  I would suggest having a dedicated floppy sun hat, a vest, or a bag on which the kids could collect all the badge pins.

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6.  States and Capitals  What better place to store memories than the spongy brain of a growing child!  Can you even remember all the state capitals?  I can’t.  But a cross-country road trip sure is a perfect time for learning useless trivia information!  We tell the kids the capital city every time we drive into a new state, and then we reinforce the information every day we are driving there just by asking them (again and again), what is the capital of Texas, Idaho, Washington, California, etc?  I have fond memories of my Grandparents doing the same thing when we travelled with them, and I like the idea of passing on this little tradition.  Throughout each trip, we find ways to put them through a mini-trivia contest of the things we’ve learned.   For example, are all the kids arguing over who gets the last brownie?    Throw a few questions at them about things you’ve learned on your trips and keep track of who gets the most right!  Name two National parks in Wyoming.  What is the capital of Idaho?  Name three places we’ve seen that have caves.  Which state has the largest capital building in the U.S?  You can come up with anything!  We’ve spent whole nights by a campfire trying to stump each other with questions.  It’s fun and the kids learn (and remember) a lot!

7.  Travel Journal  Have the kids keep a travel journal.    We used a simple composition notebook, but it really doesn’t matter what you start with.  Make sure you have scotch tape, glue sticks, and one pair of scissors in the car so that the kids can cut and paste stuff into their notebook.  This is a great activity to keep the kids busy on the drives between sites.  Each time we leave somewhere, I have the kids write about what they did, or saw, or learned, or liked about that place.  Kids at every age can do this!  My youngest started out just drawing pictures and writing a few sentences about what they saw, but now they are filling pages with writing about their favorite adventures.  Not only does it help shuffle some of their memories into the long-term storage pathways of the brain, but it is an excellent way to keep the kids writing over the summer.   Also, by keeping the same notebook over the course of a few trips, it’s really fun for the kids to look back and see what they wrote in previous years, and to see how much they’ve improved!  They are always giggling when they read old entries, either because they are laughing at old jokes or laughing at how they used to write.  What a confidence booster for them to see how much better they are “now” compared to before.


Well, I have plenty more ideas to come later on, but I think that’s a good start for now!  I hope you have some memorable adventures this summer!  I can’t believe it’s already here.

Happy Trails!

Teaching Stewardship

Within three days of becoming a ‘blogger’ I found myself involved in a controversial discussion over the use of our National Parks and I’ve been feeling rather contentious ever since.  However, today I went to a very restorative yoga session where all we did was lay on our backs and hug pillows, so I’m  currently lounging in a state of gratitude and graciousness; much better for writing sensibly.  I think.

It all stemmed from the publication of this article by John Lemons in the online magazine Aeon.  The article essentially calls into question the idea of whether the NPS has actually “preserved unimpaired” the wildernesses it was designed to protect.  Their mission states:

“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Are the footprints of humanity changing, and perhaps damaging, the land “preserved” by the National Park System?  Without question, yes.

If you sell ice cream, they will come.  The first time I recognized this phenomenon was while exploring the Columbia River Gorge during our 2010 Northwest trip.  This incredibly beautiful area of Oregon is packed with lush foliage, dozens of cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the Columbia River.  We saw four different waterfalls that day, including the infamous Multnomah Falls.  Multnomah is a truly spectacular view, and deserving of the hype and attention it gets, but Multnomah sells ice cream.  And coffee.  And beer.  Multnomah had hundreds of visitors the day we were there, but just a short hike into the same forest brought us to beautiful Wahkeena Falls, and the utter joy of observing a waterfall in relative solitude.

Wahkeena Falls, 2010 – Jack experiencing an Oregon waterfall.

Though I respect the credentials of Mr. Lemons, and agree with a lot of what he has to say, I don’t believe the crowds in some of our parks are necessarily a bad thing.  This is why.

The National Parks protect America’s Greatest Treasures, and by greatest, I mean the places in our country that inspire great thoughts and deeds, that hold the secrets of our history, that will be our last true wildernesses, and that provide a safe, natural habitat for animals that would otherwise be lost to land development. As our population grows, the parks are never going to look like they once did.  We can accept that, and then focus on ensuring the least destructive ways to accommodate the visitors, or we cannot accept it and continue to fight a battle of ideals while the hotel and dining concessioners plan their next move.  I want the parks to be visited, because it is the parks themselves that inspire stewardship, and that is what we so desperately need in the next generation.

Stewardship is an internal awareness of ownership and obligation.  Merriam-Webster defines it as the “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”    Our children today are much more well-versed in conservation than we ever were.  They are exposed to regular news stories on global warming, deforestation, and polluted resources.  They complete endangered species projects at school.   They recycle everything.  They go to high school and participate in mock panel discussions and lab simulations over the problems associated with an exponentially growing world population and finite resources.

Yet, despite being knowledgeable, how many of them will grow up to really care enough to put that knowledge to good use?  How many of them will grow up to feel ownership and responsibility for our wildernesses?   As our population grows, the decisions required to maintain our parks and other wild places are going to become more and more unpleasant.  How can we ask them to fight these battles, make the tough decisions, and to forge new pathways in conservation if they are not passionate about saving them?  Our country will need both leaders and voters that are truly inspired by nature, that consider themselves stewards of nature.  The only way to teach this is to get our children outside.  Stewardship has to come from experience, because only then will you know what you are missing if it is gone.

So yes, the crowds at Multnomah can be frustrating, but they don’t take away from the absolutely awe-inspiring spectacle of the plummeting waterfall.  If people want to meet their friends and family there, get married there, photograph or picnic there, I think it’s fabulous.   The same goes for Yosemite Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful of Yellowstone.  In fact, with so many man-made attractions vying for their attention,  a few well-known spots in nature that will turn our children’s heads the other way are a good thing.  There are still thousands more where those that desire it can walk alone for days and contemplate the connections between life.  Like here.

I would love to see the dining and hotel concessioners ousted from our National Parks altogether, or at least prevented from any further development within park boundaries.  Also, I would be completely in favor of an annual visitor cap at our most congested parks, perhaps raffled off in lottery fashion each year like our hunting tag system.  But, I do believe we have to protect our parks for the people, not in spite of them, and I think that all too often the importance of the parks to humans gets overshadowed by the more passionate environmental perspective.  It’s not just important to us, it’s vital.   Our children are growing up in a world with a constant barrage of unrealistic Hollywood movies, video games, and plastic toys, and there could be nothing more vital to their emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being than getting the kids inspired by something truly unique and remarkable in nature, something that will light that fire of ownership within them.  We must give them the opportunity to realize that the nations greatest treasures are also their greatest treasures.

Happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone!  I hope you all have a chance to step away from your obligations for a bit and find your own little piece of nature.

Happy Trails.

Science Friday

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

~John Muir

I realize that I’m borrowing (stealing) today’s title from NPR, but I just love the Science Friday program so much that I’m going to call it a ‘tribute’ instead.

I’m really into themes.  Perhaps it was the years of submitting lesson plans for evaluation, but I actually can’t leave for a trip without having a science topic ready to discuss as our theme for the trip.  I don’t really explain this fully to the kids because I do want them to think of our trips as a fun vacation instead of something closer to summer school, but its just so easy to incorporate science into our everyday exploration of the world.  The thing is, when you’re out there experiencing it the kids don’t even realize they are “learning”  until they start making connections with things they’ve learned at school.  Their eyes light and up and they get so excited when they can speak knowledgably about something they know, and I can almost see the new neural pathways being formed as the knowledge takes on a permanence of its own just by the activity of recalling it and/or linking it to prior knowledge.  I can’t tell you how many times the kids have been on a trip and recognized a topic from the prior school year, or been in school and recognized a topic from the previous trip!

Learning is fun, universal, and a life-long adventure.  Choosing to spend your vacations out in nature learning about the world teaches the kids this idea on a very intuitive level.  Most likely, they’ll have a better attitude towards learning, which will make them successful in school, which will ensure they go to a great college, which promises they’ll get a great job and meet a great spouse and have beautiful kids that they can support all by themselves, which in turn, of course, allows you to retire early and travel more.  See?  It all works out.

But, I digress.  This post was supposed to be about my science theme for the Southern California trip (Itinerary #1).

Today’s quote is one of my all-time favorite John Muir quotes.  This central concept in biology, that everything is connected to everything else, is a universal and fundamental topic of science.  If the kids can wrap their heads around what it really means, they already have a great foundation for studying life science as they progress through school, and through life.  The best part is that children can understand this topic at any age.

To focus on this universal idea, I decided that studying Ecosystems would be a science theme for this trip.   The study of ecosystems gives us an opportunity to learn so many important aspects of ecology.  Here are just a few things you can show your kids on this trip:

  • The connections between living things and their nonliving environment.
  • The differences between various North American ecosystems.
  • That we find certain species in some ecosystems but not in others.
  • How different species have adapted to challenges or change in their environment.
  • How different species share the resources in the same environment.
  • The different food webs of the ecosystem and how each species plays an important role in the life of another species.
  • How humans are protecting and/or changing the ecosystem.

There couldn’t be a better opportunity to teach about the diverse ecosystem’s of the United States than while exploring the state of California.  On this trip alone, there are rivers, estuaries, rocky beaches, and sandy beaches.  There are glaciated mountains, lush forests, caves, lakes, and deserts.  There is just so much to see, and to emphasize to the kids that all these different ecosystems can be found in half the state of California, I think is a very unique teaching opportunity.  Make the effort to teach them some science vocabulary as you travel.  Incorporate the words as you hike and explore and the kids will easily gain a deeper understanding of their meaning and have a little bit of a leg-up when they head back to school.  Here are three simple but important vocabulary words to ‘casually’ work into your conversations during this trip:

  • Ecosystem – includes all the living and nonliving things in an environment
    Examples:  coastal beach, forest, desert
    Conversation Starter:  How do the animals that you’ve seen on this hike use the non-living parts of the ecosystem?
  • Community – all the different species of living things that live in an ecosystem
    Examples:  different plants, insects, or mammals in a forest
    Conversation Starter:  How do all the different animals in this forest use this tree? (think of the insects, birds, rodents, reptiles, etc.)
  • Population – includes all the members of one species in a particular area
    Examples:  Sequoia Trees, Cholla cacti, seaweed
    Conversation Starter:  Where do you see the wildflowers growing on this hike?

Here are some teaching ideas for the specific parks in the Southern California Itinerary:

Joshua Tree National Park

  • Make a desert wildflower scavenger hunt for the kids.  Their website has a fantastic list of blooming wildflowers each season.  Print out pictures, label the backs, and let the kids search for them.  Mine really enjoyed it and we learned that lots of flowers grow in the desert!
  • Go to Keys View and point out the infamous San Andreas Fault, the place where the North American and the Pacific Plates touch!  Here is a fantastic website full of information on the faults in general and the San Andreas specifically.  Ask the kids what they think happens to the nonliving parts of the environment after an earthquake.  Then ask them how those changes in the environment could change the species that live there.
  • Here is a great story about a Joshua Tree named Lily.  These whimsical trees look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book and believe it or not, kids love learning about the role they play in the desert ecosystem!

Joshua Tree National Park, 2009 – Girls working on our desert wildflower scavenger hunt!

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

  • The Sequoia trees are the largest living organisms on Earth!  Their sheer volume is mindboggling, which makes them such a great focus for a discussion on populations.  As you walk through the Giant Forest, have the kids run around and touch every Sequoia tree they can find, then ask them how they know?  Get them to talk about which features make them different than any other plant in the woods.
  • Kids love finding the very large sugar pinecones.  It’s interesting that these pinecones are so large, but fall from a  relative small tree, whereas the Sequoia pine cones are fairly small.  Anyway, this is a great opportunity to talk about communities!  Even though they’ve already found Sequoia trees everywhere, the kids can see that all the different pine cones laying on the forest floor represent a community of trees that live in the forest with the Sequoias.  Ask them how all the different trees might share the same resources (soil, water, light) in the forest.  Also, the junior ranger packets might have a scavenger hunt already set up for the different pine cones and tree species.

Sequoia National Park, 2009 – Arwen proudly displaying a sugar pinecone.

Yosemite National Park

  • The mountains and valleys of Yosemite provide a great opportunity for discussing the living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) factors that affect an environment.  Water is the easiest to talk about and most important nonliving factor that is necessary for life.   When you are hiking around the waterfalls, point out any moss you see growing on the nearby rocks, or small plants you see clinging to the cracks in the granite, or the fish and plants living in the runoff streams.  Start a conversation with the kids about how they think freshwater influences the life they see.  Ask them where they think the water comes from, and where they think its going.  Teach them that “water is lazy” and they will remember forever that water is always trying to find the easiest (lowest) way down.
  • Glaciation is another nonliving factor that can shape an ecosystem and glaciers play a major role in forming the geological features you see at Yosemite.  First, explain to the kids what a glacier is and when they occurred.   When you are in Yosemite Valley talk about how the valley was formed through the advancement and recession of consecutive glaciers during the ice ages.  If you have the extra time, plan a bus ride up to Glacier Point and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view of the work of Glaciers in shaping this environment!  Here is a very informative page on the geology (study of rocks) and hydrology (study of water) of Yosemite.
  • The meadows of Yosemite are beautiful and offer an excellent opportunity to explore the biodiversity of this ecosystem.  Even with staying on the designated boardwalks and paths, the kids can see an enormous amount of life in a very small area.  Have them count how many different species of life they can find!

Yosemite National Park, 2009 – Aubrey walking in Sentinel Meadow.

Pinnacles National Park

  • Explore a cave and get the kids talking about a very unique ecosystem!   The abiotic factors (rocks, light, and water) all play an important role in determining which organisms can live in this special place!  Many children think that nothing can live in caves, but use this opportunity dispel incorrect notions and have fun looking for new critters!
  • Pinnacles is located near the San Andras Fault and some of the cave formations were actually created by the fault action and long-ago earthquakes.  Remind the kids that they saw this same fault down in Joshua Tree and that the fault line extends all the way through California.  Find a map in the visitor center to point this out.  Kids love learning about anything that has to do with earthquakes!

Well, I think that’s enough for one Friday!  Hope your planning is successful, and as always, contact me with any questions or comments!

Happy Trails!

Amazing Places!

I saw Amazing Places to Take Your Kids by Laura Sutherland sitting on an out-of-the-way bookshelf at a school book fair.  I picked it up because it was priced so inexpensively and it probably wasn’t something I would have found at my favorite large book seller.  What a discovery!  This book has helped me plan and shape every single one of our road trips!  The chapters are laid out by regions of the United States, perfect for the way in which we travel.  On almost every page, there is a different place to visit described succinctly, yet with enough information to decide if it is age-appropriate for your kids.  Also, there is a large photograph on every page that the kids love!  This is a great tool in getting them involved in the planning process  because they can actually see what the options are in that region.  Sights in the book include various national parks, museums, theme parks, beaches, and historical places.  It really is amazing because it helps you get a feel for what attractions are important to see in an unfamiliar area of the country.  It’s also great to use for any of your other travelling throughout the year.  If you are going to visit family, flying to a new city for a wedding, or just want to get out of town for a weekend somewhere, this book has great ideas on fantastic places to visit.

We also use this book as a memory-keeper for our trips.  We bring it with us on our vacations, and after visiting a site that is described the book, we turn to that page, date it, and everyone in the car signs it.   It’s kind of neat that now I have a book with signatures dating back to four years ago, and we will just keep adding to it.  I think it will be another great keepsake with which to remember our travels.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this great planning and keepsake idea.  If you’re interested, check out the publishers page or Amazon.com to purchase a copy.

Happy Trails!


Amazing Places


“In the end we will only conserve what we love; we will only love what we understand; and we will only understand what we have been taught.”
~Baba Dioum, Senegalese Environmentalist and Poet

Welcome and Happy Mothers Day!

One of my New Year Resolutions for the year was to figure out what to do with all my vacation itineraries.  The obvious answer is to write a travel book, publish it, make a million dollars, retire early, travel more.  Unfortunately, since I haven’t yet reached the status of nationally syndicated radio talk show host or famous daytime pop psychologist,  getting the attention of a literary agent is basically impossible.  So, I’ve decided to launch this blog instead.  Thank you for taking the time stop by.

Parents have many ambitions when it comes to raising children.   Personally, I want my kids to be self-reliant, to have a solid understanding of why the world looks the way it does, to be responsible with money, to live an active and healthy life, to be passionate about protecting our environment, to be proud citizens of these United States, to laugh easily, and to love spending time with their family.   I mean I’m not asking for much.  In light of these parenting goals, I made the decision four years ago to change the way we do family vacations.  My long term project is to explore all 59 U.S. National Parks before the kids graduate from high school.   Maybe this strategy isn’t going to guarantee that they’ll possess all these traits by the time they’re grown, but I figure it might help, and so every summer we head out into the world to experience real eye-opening, strength-testing, character building, Took-loving adventures! (Yes, I often look for ways to reference Tolkein.)

Dreams and high expectations are as much a part of motherhood as are guilt, diapers and chauffeuring.  So I’m pretty sure that most of you share many of these same dreams for your own kids.  For the sake of introducing what is to come here, let me just say that this project is centered around the following three child-rearing priorities:

  1. Nothing is more important than finding the time and money to explore the world with your kids.
  2. The best way to improve our country is to teach our children to understand it and care about it.
  3. Adventure is necessary food for the soul.

Every day I read articles relating to how anxiety-ridden, secluded, dependent, overweight, fussy, and/or depressed so many of our children are becoming.  I realize the problem is complex and the solutions will have to be daring and multi-faceted, but in the meantime I wage my own battle here in my little claim on the world.  I will show my children that we work hard to play hard and that the beauty of life can only be discovered through the guts of experience.   I will teach them that they are stronger than they think they are, and that happiness has nothing to do with a mattress and a flat-screen TV.

“Mountains and Valleys” is a phrase we coined at some point along one of our trips.  Now we use it to describe all of our high and low points.  Your Mountain is the best part of your day, trip, school year, year, whatever.  The Valley is the worst.  I hope most of what I share with you are mountains, but I think its also good to remind ourselves that valleys are just that – a low point that we’ll hike out of before we climb our next mountain.

I have a very messy collection of plans, tidbits, advice, lessons, photos, parenting commentary, and travel writing currently scattered all over my notebooks and desktop.  I aim to use this blog as a vehicle to get my own writing organized, but also as a method of sharing my ideas with others that may find it useful.  As a former teacher, I very strongly believe in the idea of building off the work that we “borrow” from others.   Please share or borrow anything here that you like!

I still have a day job and three kids and five ball team schedules to work around, so my posting probably won’t be as consistent as I wish, but I think there’s enough here to start with.  The categories listed on the right are fairly empty at the moment, but keep checking back in because I will be adding posts!  Our first trip itinerary is available for download on the Itineraries page, so stop by and take a look if you’re interested.

Again, thank you for visiting.   I hope that in these pages you find a little inspiration and a lot of help in planning your family’s next Great Adventure, and I always look forward to any feedback, comments, or ideas of your own that you want to share.

Happy Trails!


Glacier National Park, 2012 – Clemans Clan at the disappearing Grinnell Glacier

Death Valley

Don’t skip a visit to Death Valley National Park.  It’s not a desert wasteland, and it’s not boring or unimportant.  The thing is, when you strip away all the conventional notions of what is beautiful, like trees for example, or flowers or other plant and wildlife, you are left with the backbone of the Earth.  Rock. Dirt. Salt. Air. Light.   It’s like stripping away a person’s hair, clothes, shape, and belongings, and just looking at their raw material:  intention, purpose, and perspective.  It’s like looking at their soul.  That’s what Death Valley shows you, the soul of the Earth.  No fluff, no showing off, no fancy ponderings of “look what I can do.”  It’s the raw material.  The great forces that shape our world are exposed.  Rock has been uplifted, torn apart, and stretched down the middle.  The exposed crust is baked and cracked in the relentless and unforgiving gaze of the sun.  Every drop of water is threatened by the salt that lies just beneath the surface.  But despite all of this, the valley is peaceful. It simply exists.   The intensity of the light, the framing of the bare mountains, the shading of the colors all make you want to somehow capture it forever, and take it home to remind you what the Earth is capable of, what it started with.  The soul knows itself, and it beckons you to stop by and take a look.

DSC_0037Death Valley National Park, 2012 – Our Thinker